Libyan Forces Again Fire on Residents at Funerals


Published: February 20, 2011

CAIRO — Libyan security forces opened fire again Sunday on residents of Benghazi as they attended a funeral procession for the dozens of protesters killed there the day before, and quickly crushed three smaller uprisings in working-class suburbs of the capital, Tripoli.

It was the fifth day of protests and violence in what has become the most serious challenge to four decades of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s rule.

The escalating violence in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city and the center of the protests, appeared to mark a decisive turn in the protests that have shaken Libya, a North African nation rich in oil.

The shooting at the funeral, where the number of casualties could not immediately be confirmed, reinforced what seems to have become a deadly cycle in a city where thousands have gathered in antigovernment demonstrations: security forces fire on funeral marches, killing more protesters, creating more funerals.

By Sunday morning, the number of confirmed deaths around the country had risen to at least 173 people, most of them in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, Human Rights Watch reported.

The scope of the crackdown was almost impossible to verify in an isolated country that remains largely off limits to foreign journalists and, as part of the government’s efforts to squelch the protests, has been periodically cut off from the Internet. But doctors reached by Al Jazeera, an Arabic satellite channel, said dozens and perhaps hundreds were killed and wounded in the fighting in Benghazi on Saturday, which persisted into the night.

A Benghazi resident who visited the hospital said by e-mail that 200 were dead and nearly 850 wounded; if confirmed, that would substantially raise the death toll by Human Rights Watch, which reported at least 20 people killed Saturday.

“It is too late for dialogue now,” said a Benghazi resident who has taken part in the demonstrations but refused to be identified. “Too much blood has been shed. The more brutal the crackdown will be, the more determined the protesters will become.”

“We don’t trust the regime anymore,” he said in a phone interview.

In Tripoli, residents reported in telephone interviews on Sunday that there had been smaller uprisings in three working class suburbs of the capital, all quickly crushed by security forces.

With Internet and telephone outages, and reports of security forces visiting the homes of those who spoke with foreign journalists, Libyans scrambled Sunday morning to broadcast news of the clashes taking place. By Sunday, Fathi Terbil, a lawyer and critic of the Qaddafi government whose brief arrest last week helped set off the violence, had set up a live video broadcast. It appeared to emanate from the roof of the courthouse in Benghazi, overlooking the public square that Libyans said they have begun to refer to as their Tahrir Square, after the site in Cairo where Egyptians gathered to challenge their dictator.

“We are expecting people to die today, more people than before,” Mr. Terbil said.

“If anything happens to us today, we are not going to leave this place,” he said. “I’m not afraid to die, I’m afraid to lose the battle, that’s why I want the media to see what’s going on.”

“At least if we die, so many people can witness, I can protest from everywhere,” he added, “Long live a free Libya. We are determined to fight till the end for our country.”

A group of fifty prominent Libyan Muslim religious leaders issued an appeal to Muslims in the security forces to stop participating in the violence against protesters.

“We appeal to every Muslim, within the regime or assisting it in any way, to recognize that the killing of innocent human beings is forbidden by our Creator and by His beloved Prophet of Compassion (peace be upon him), “ the statement declared, according to Reuters. “Do NOT kill your brothers and sisters. STOP the massacre NOW! “

The government response in Libya underlined an unintended consequence of the success of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, where protests pouring into the streets day after day forced the departure of long-serving authoritarian leaders. In Libya, Yemen and Algeria, the governments have quickly resorted to violence to crush unrest before it gathers momentum that might threaten their grip on power.

Demonstrations began on Sunday in Morocco, where at least 10,000 people turned out in cities across the country to call for a change of government and for limitations on the power of the king, Mohammed VI. In the capital, Rabat, and in the largest city, Casablanca, there were between 3,000 and 4,000 protesters, as well as smaller demonstrations in other cities, like Marrakech and Tangier. All were passing off peacefully, though state radio had announced that the rallies had been canceled, perhaps as a tactic to keep the numbers down.

The police did not intervene, although in Casablanca numerous undercover policemen were obvious in the crowd, sometimes using cameras to photograph protestors.

The rallies were in response to a “February 20” movement that began on Facebook. In Casablanca, slogans called for the government to resign. One sign said: “Democratic Constitution = Parliamentary Monarchy.”

“This is a start,” said Imane Safi, 18. “The Arab world is changing and the Moroccan people need a change in the constitution for more democracy. We want a country like Britain, with a constitutional monarchy and a strong parliament that is not corrupt.”

A medical doctor, 62, said that she was very happy to see the youth movement for change: “We hope that civil society will join, and we know it will take time, but we have to work. The government is not real, and all key decisions are in the hands of the king and his friends, and people are tired of accepting a lie.”

In Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, violence that flared over the weekend as security forces opened fire at protesters, wounding at least four people, appeared to give way to a standoff on Sunday.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh rallied several thousand supporters in the capital, Sana, pledging to protect the country from “from chaos and from subversives,” to talk with opposition parties, and “to meet their demands if they are legitimate,” according to the official news service.

The crowds, many wearing traditional Yemeni daggers, chanted their support for the president. “We will sacrifice our blood and soul for Ali.”

But protesters seeking Mr. Saleh’s ouster did not back down either. About 1000 students started a sit in outside Sanaa University, joining thousands of others sitting out in Taiz — the center of the protests here — since the revolt in Egypt forced President Hosni Mubarak from power a little more than one week ago.

The crackdown in Libya has proven the bloodiest of the recent government actions, drawing criticism from the United States and European allies.

In London, Foreign Minister William Hague said Saturday that he had reports that heavy weapons fire and sniper units were being used against protests, organized in a half-dozen cities or more.

“This is clearly unacceptable and horrifying,” he said in a statement.

Earlier in the day, thousands had returned to the courthouse in Benghazi. Idris Ahmed al-Agha, a Libyan writer reached by telephone, said the crowd had grown to more than 20,000 by midday — an account confirmed by others — with many of the people there planning to take part in funeral marches to bury dozens of people killed a day before.

Opposition Web sites reported that security forces later fired on some of the mourners. One site, Al Manara, said snipers fired from an army base that sits on the route to the cemetery, and a video posted on a Facebook page that has compiled images from the protests showed a march coming under fire, with at least one man shot in the head. Doctors have said that most of the dead have suffered gunshots.

“It seems that security forces in Libya do not feel there are limits on how far they can go in suppressing protests,” said Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Cairo who has been in contact with residents and doctors in Benghazi.

The government has viewed the situation in Benghazi as so precarious that Colonel Qaddafi sent his son, Saadi, to the eastern Libyan city last week in an attempt to mollify resentment, residents said. In a speech Wednesday, the son promised reform, but his overtures were seen as condescending, several said. His whereabouts were unclear on Saturday, with some saying he was holed up in a hotel in the city, where Colonel Qaddafi’s hold on power is not as strong as in the capital, Tripoli, in the west.

In Benghazi, protesters have echoed a chant heard in Tunisia, then picked up by protesters in Egypt: “The people want to topple the regime.”

One of the region’s wealthier countries, Libya has been spared the economic grievances that offered a cadence to protests in Egypt. Nor does Colonel Qaddafi seem to generate the loathing that President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali did in Tunisia. Though his rule has proven idiosyncratic and eccentric, he has a luxury not afforded neighboring Egypt: vast oil revenues and a small population.

But political grievances in places like Benghazi have deepened with the crackdown. Some accuse the state of deploying special forces and foreign mercenaries unable to speak Arabic to crush the protests, and the bloodshed — much of it inflicted on funeral marches — seems to have struck a chord of anger.

“They’re not going to go back to their homes,” said Issa Abed al-Majid Mansour, an exiled opposition leader in Oslo. “If they do, he’ll finish them off. They know the regime very well. There’s no to way to go back now. Never, never.”

The Libyan crackdown comes amid one of the most tumultuous moments in the Arab world in recent memory, with two longtime leaders falling in as many months and a series of Arab states facing defiant calls for change.

In the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, saved from much of the devastation visited on the rest of the country during the American-led war, a demonstration ended with gunfire on Saturday for the second time in less than a week. Gunmen wearing civilian clothes fired on a group of students from the University of Sulaimaniya, wounding 12 people. Hundreds of students chanting antigovernment slogans had gathered on Saturday to demand the government apologize for the bloodshed at the earlier demonstration. The original protests were against local leaders in the semiautonomous area and echoed complaints across the region over the excessive power of long-ruling parties and corruption.

In Algiers, hundreds of baton-wielding police officers pushed back demonstrators, breaking up an antigovernment protest in the downtown. Thousands paraded peacefully through Tunis to demand the country adhere to secular traditions, in one of the largest protests since Mr. Ben Ali’s fall in January; since his ouster, many exiled Islamists have returned to the country, apparently raising concerns that that they would push for religion to play a greater role in politics. The government there also signed an amnesty decree that would free prisoners convicted on grounds of politics, security or activism.

The military government in Egypt took more steps toward a handover of power. State television reported that that within six months, the government would end the so-called emergency law which, for 30 years, has allowed detentions without charges or trial. The judge heading the effort to draft constitutional amendments said his panel might produce recommendations as early as Sunday, for a referendum in the coming weeks. And the government recognized the first new political party formed since the revolution, a moderate Islamist group that has sought recognition for 15 years.

Reporting was contributed by Mona El-Naggar and David D. Kirkpatrick from Cairo; Steven Erlanger from Casablanca, Morocco; Nada Bakri from Beirut; Adam Nossiter from Algiers; Laura Kasinof from Sana, Yemen; Jack Healy from Baghdad; Thomas Fuller from Tunis; and John Markoff from San Francisco.

Source:  The New York times  – Africa

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